One of the first things you see when you enter the A Woman’s War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum is a cast of a woman’s naked torso.
The torso belongs to Lee Miller, the notorious photographer and correspondent for British Vogue during WW2. It was a cast created by the surrealist artist, Man Ray. I was slightly surprised to see it. The curators had promised me that this exhibition would document ‘Miller’s evolving vision of women’s roles in lives in Britain and Europe (…) before, during and in the immediate aftermath of the war’. So why was there surrealist art and glamour modelling shots on the walls?
The curators of A Woman’s War start off the exhibition with a brief back history of Lee Miller’s life. They paint a picture of a ‘little girl lost’ – sexually assaulted as a child, used by her father as a life model for his own photography during her adolescence, becoming a model at 18 years old, only for her career to end in scandal.
Liberation came in the form of the surrealist movement and Man Ray, the aforementioned artist, who creates portraits and sculptures of Miller. Her relationship with the artist allows her access to photographers and studios, and, as the exhibition seems to suggest, the ability to take back control of her image, and of other women around her.
This becomes a key plot point in the exhibition as Miller begins her career as a war correspondent. The next few walls are full of photographs of women – women working on planes, women flying planes, women in factories, women civilians in war-torn towns – women, doing things. Actively participating in warfare. It was fascinating and brilliant to see.
However, as soon as the war ends, and the Women at War section of the exhibition ends, Miller’s story is looped back into the ‘little girl lost’ narrative. She suffers from PTSD, alcoholism, depression and divorce – pitfall images of a fallen woman. The story doesn’t end, but sort of trails off, haphazardly tied up with a note about her becoming a chef, with the final photo we see being one of Miller, standing in a kitchen.
I understand the limitations of an exhibition, especially one that is coming from an artist with a large body of work. You have to find a strand to thread everything together, to pull along your audience. But what annoyed me is how Miller’s story was framed by tragedy – and that her success came across as being circumstantial. A lot of her photography had also been emitted to put the main focus upon women. Again, I know that this was deliberate. But it meant that Lee Miller’s story becomes wrapped up with the general narrative of women post-war – once the men came back, they were no longer needed or valued.
Lee Miller was a sensational photographer, as the exhibition obviously shows, and I knew that there was more to her than her womanhood. But this is the point that the curators decided to hone in on, from the cast of her torso to the final image of her in the kitchen.
We need to try and let women’s stories be told in full, outside of any parameters. No matter how messy or vast they are.